[Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
I have often been touched by stories of the selkies, seals that can take human form. Tales of these creatures have been common in the folklore of the islands and coastal mainland of northern scotland and farther north, with a series of stamps being produced in the Faroe Islands illustrating some of the legends. Although romanticized in most modern re-tellings, the stories often had a sinister undertone in traditional narratives, the most common of which seems to have been the capturing of a selkie woman for a wife by a human fisherman. It was said that they came out of the sea and shed their skins and were then vulnerable to capture if a man could take the skin and hide it away somewhere. Often a selkie wife would bear several children to the fisherman before finding her skin and escaping back to the sea while he was out fishing. In other stories a human woman takes a selkie lover.
The stories in their sentimental form are not hard to come by but some grittier accounts of the contexts of their telling may be found in works such as David Thomson's The People of the Sea . There is also some interesting context for the possible antiquity of these legends in a recently published book Britain Begins by the archaeologist Barry Cunliffe where he refers to mesolithic deposits in the Hebrides where human finger and toe bones have been placed next to seal flippers in what appears to be "a deliberate act of association".
I recently encountered the following poem in the collection The Wrecking Light by Robin Robertson, a poem dedicated to John Burnside whom I have discussed on this blog before. It engages with the selkie stories in a characteristically bleak way, but also with a use of imagery and a choice of diction that shows him at his tactile best. I shiver when I read such stuff: At Roane Head
You’d know her house by the drawn blinds – by the cormorants pitched on the boundary wall, the black crosses of their wings hung out to dry. You’d tell it by the quicken and the pine that hid it from the sea and from the brief light of the sun, and by Aonghas the collie, lying at the door where he died: a rack of bones like a sprung trap. A fork of barnacle geese came over, with that slow squeak of rusty saws. The bitter sea’s complaining pull and roll; a whicker of pigeons, lifting in the wood. She’d had four sons, I knew that well enough, and each one wrong. All born blind, they say, slack-jawed and simple, web-footed, rickety as sticks. Beautiful faces, I’m told, though blank as air. Someone saw them once, outside, hirpling down to the shore, chittering like rats, and said they were fine swimmers, but I would have guessed at that. Her husband left her: said they couldn’t be his, they were more fish than human, said they were beglamoured, and searched their skin for the showing marks. For years she tended each difficult flame: their tight, flickering bodies. Each night she closed the scales of their eyes to smoor the fire. Until he came again, that last time, thick with drink, saying he’d had enough of this, all this witchery, and made them stand in a row by their beds, twitching. Their hands flapped; herring-eyes rolled in their heads. He went along the line relaxing them one after another with a small knife. It’s said she goes out every night to lay blankets on the graves to keep them warm. It would put the heart across you, all that grief. There was an otter worrying in the leaves, a heron loping slow over the water when I came at scraich of day, back to her door. She’d hung four stones in a necklace, wore four rings on the hand that led me past the room with four small candles burning which she called ‘the room of rain’. Milky smoke poured up from the grate like a waterfall in reverse and she said my name and it was the only thing and the last thing that she said. She gave me a skylark’s egg in a bed of frost; gave me twists of my four sons' hair; gave me her husband's head in a wooden box. The she gave me the sealskin, and I put it on.